Bringing the inspirational story behind tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams to film, King Richard revels in the limitless potential of Black children, exploring what happens when dreams are prioritized and survival mode isn’t their concern.
Lauded as a biographical sports drama, King Richard is not the story of Venus and Serena Williams. Really, it’s not even the story of their larger-than-life father and coach, Richard, who developed a 78-page plan for their futures as tennis powerhouses before they were even born (and executed as soon as each sister could hold a racket). Before the broken records and the fame came a business-minded patriarch devoted to a far-fetched dream turned reality of the luminary Williams sisters — and King Richard brings that story of dedication and communal encouragement to life.
Effortlessly cycling between being a self-aggrandizing promoter, reckless gambler, stubborn helicopter parent, and overbearing bully husband, Will Smith disappears into the role of Richard Williams, his comedic training both highlighting and legitimizing the absurdity of his ego-drunk character. Richard’s mind is one large chess board, but it’s one cluttered with pride and insecurity informed by racial traumas. Raised in the deep South during a time when Black people couldn’t touch whites — let alone play on the same court — Richard’s narrative strengths lie in his astute observations of the world, namely his judgments on whiteness. The mad king is never so clear and correct in his haphazard moves as when he is in direct conflict with white supremacy, and he reigns supreme in his moral superiority over whites. Case in point: presented with a life-changing opportunity for his family as he’s seated at a table he’s chased for years surrounded by white executives at a country club, Richard audibly farts and then heads for a swim.
An immense risk, the move pays off, clearing the way for Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) to join the eccentric tennis coach Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal). By disrupting whiteness, Richard repeatedly fails upward. It’s an ethic he passes on to his daughters, instilling them with unbridled confidence in their worth and achievements. They learn his lessons and carry them on without his unchecked self-importance and baggage. Still, despite heavy nods to racial dynamics, King Richard doesn’t spend much time allowing its audience to fully interrogate the positionality of Blackness outside of fiction. Instead, the film opts for a post-racial lens which lets in throwaway references to Rodney King and the horrors of the Jim Crow South. This is a causality of the film’s lackluster and tonally conflicting script penned by first-time screenwriter Zach Baylin.
Splitting locations between California and Florida, director Reinaldo Marcus Green recreates Compton’s violent reputation while teasing out the covert racism running rampant at the country clubs Venus and Serena play at, revealing both spaces to be two sides of the same supremacist coin. Above it all rises Venus and Serena, championed by the support of their family.
Of course, there’s more than meets the eye, and a safe script does a disservice to the inner conflict of its individual characters. For the entire family, frustration with Richard’s lack of self-awareness simmers underneath the surface, only to blow up a scene with quiet and sustained rage. Despite the weak script they’re given, a predominantly female cast (even as they’re underutilized in comparison to the likes of Smith, Bernthal, and Tony Goldwyn, who portrays Paul Cohen, the girls’ conservative first coach) perfects King Richard by imbueing its dialogue with unparalleled emotional depth. The cast is filled out by Mikayla LaShae Bartholomew (who portrays the sibling duo’s eldest half-sister Tunde Price); Danielle Lawson (Isha Price); Layla Crawford (Lyndrea Price); and its captivating crown jewel Aunjanue Ellis (Oracene “Brandy” Price, the Williams matriarch).
Ellis delivers an outstanding performance as the determined — but ultimately trapped — queen beside (or behind, depending on who you ask) Richard. An initial conceit of her unquestioning loyalty to Richard and his zany plans full of ridiculous demands, limits her performance in the film’s first half. Once that veil is lifted though, Ellis explodes into a dynamic and ferocious principal figure. There’s been little said about the woman married to the mad king, but King Richard sets the record straight and invests life into the story of a Black woman doing the best for her children, despite her husband doing everything in his power to make her life hell. Ellis’ incandescent electricity generously provides the spark behind one of the best scenes of the year, tipping the scales of King Richard‘s eventual Oscar campaign with authentic favor.
Even though the sanitized fictional depiction of the Williams family often veers close to the slapstick emptiness of Family Matters, King Richard emphasizes the vital role their family unit played in the Williams sisters’ transformation into tennis phenoms with care. Here lies the film’s emotional core: retreating from the mythic image of Venus and Serena as tennis legends foregrounds their success with the tight-knit — if often fraught — community that fostered it. By examining those intimate bonds, the film proves successful as a heart-wrenching meditation on the limited opportunities afforded to Black youth. King Richard dares to ask what would happen if, instead of constantly living in survival mode, young Black children —especially girls — were encouraged to dream, and had those dreams wholeheartedly supported. It is a question regularly taken for granted in a white-dominated world, but one that would transform it for the better.
LaTesha Harris is a writer, producer, and reluctant talking head from Texas who currently resides in Chicago. She has written for NPR, Bitch Media, Variety and Chicago Reader.